Teaching Shapes in Early Childhood

Recently a colleague of mine posed the question 'How do you teach shapes?' to me.

It's an interesting question, don't you think?

Earlier in the year I had attended a Maths workshop and the presenter made, what I thought was, an interesting point.  That we are teaching shapes to children (particularly in the early years) the wrong way.  I'll leave that thought for a moment...


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I've also been reading the book Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills Through Spatial Learning(affiliate link).  I mentioned it in an earlier post about prompting block play.  It's a very interesting text, a little clunky/academic in parts but the content is so valuable.

The author makes the point that 'shapes are generally introduced to preschool children in very rigid ways, and these stereotypes can last throughout their schooling.... (that) even though 3- and 4-year old children can recognise a triangle in a variety of orientations, the rigidity of some teachers who do not show geometric shapes from different perspectives can prevent children from recognising different shapes as they get older.  For example, children may only be exposed to a triangle with the horizontal base early in life; these children may not realise that different triangles can have different types of lines and angles and face different directions.  They only recognise the triangle shape in one orientation' (Pollman, M.J., 2010, p.48-49).





She highlights the confusion between surface shapes and three-dimensional shapes that exists in young children and states it is up to the teacher to enhance the learning of shapes by using clear wording.

Children need to be given many examples of shapes, nonexamples of shapes, and precise language related to the concept of a particular shape.  Much discussion needs to take place for children to recognise the number of sides and angles of shapes, and whether they are open or closed (Pollman, p50).

This was the point the presenter I mentioned earlier had made.  She had drawn a square on a piece of paper then asked us what shape it was.  'A square?'  'Yes.'

She then asked us what shape the A4 folder she was holding was.  'A rectangle?'  'No, it can't be a rectangle as I'm able to hold it.  It must be a 3D shape if I can pick it up and hold it but when we do this in class, that's what most of us are teaching our students' was what she said and when you think about it, it makes sense doesn't it but I know I've been guilty of doing just that.  Anything we can pick up and hold must have some depth, making it a 3D shape not 2D one.  For example, a rectangular brick might have a rectangle face that we can see when looking at it but the actual brick that we can hold is a rectangular prism, a 3D shape.

So how best to teach shapes and help build spatial awareness in the Early Years? 


Teaching shapes in early childhood.  Are we teaching them the right way?  For teaching suggestions, visit http://youclevermonkey.com/

Outside the US? I recommend The Book Depository
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Blocks and Beyond provides some supporting activities such as

- investigating shapes with play dough
- working with cubes or rectangular prisms
- finding shapes in the environment
- paper folding
- playing 'Guess the shape?' game using a mix of both flat shapes and three dimensional shapes
- painting/printing shapes to find shapes within shapes
- increasing the vocabulary around shapes
- puzzles
- patterns
- sorting 3D shapes
- using picture books full of position words and phrases

From me, in schools I can also see journalling being an effective way to explore shapes. I'd pinned a link to some fantastic maths journals a while back that proved very popular and rightfully so. It's a great site posing lots of problem solving questions like - 'Can you fill a circle with squares?' and 'I have 2 shapes in my basket. Together, they have 7 sides. What shapes do I have?'
Image from Kindergarten, Kindergarten

I also think the use of mirrors with blocks can provide some valuable feedback during play.  Or another, using contact paper (sticky side up) with shape cards underneath for children to trace/build over with sticks/wool/pipe cleaners.  DIY geoboards have also proved popular in my classroom especially with bright loom bands to use.

Here's a roundup of some more ideas -

Playing with a mirror box at The Imagination Tree
Exploring symmetry and shapes at One Perfect Day
Sticker pictures at Creative Play Central
Playing with sticks at ko-ko-ko kids
3D block sort at Spielgaben
3D shape dominos at Ms Crafty Nyla
Building 2D shapes at A, Bee, C, Preschool
Matching 3D shapes to real life at Differentiation Station
Copying cube patterns at On The Shelf
Introduction to geometry for preschoolers at Kids Activities Blog
Shape matching wheel (with free printable) at Teaching Mama
Salt drawing shapes at Teach Preschool

You might find even more on my Pinterest board: 
Follow Nichole {youclevermonkey}'s board Maths Play - Measurement and Geometry on Pinterest.


Teaching shapes in early childhood.  Are we teaching them the right way?  For teaching suggestions, visit http://youclevermonkey.com/


How do you teach shapes in your classroom?  I'd love to hear your ideas.


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